was abortive. Can’t you leave his memory in peace-not to mention his family?”

Pitt stood up. “Thank you, Mr. Asherson. You have been most frank. Good day, sir.” And he left the uncertain-looking Asherson standing on the bright blue and vermillion Turkish carpet in the middle of the floor.

Back at Bow Street in the icy dusk, Pitt climbed the stairs to Ballarat’s office and knocked on the door. At the command he went in.

Ballarat was standing in front of the fire, blocking it. His room was quite different from the functional quarters of the lesser police on the beat, downstairs. The broad desk was inlaid with green leather, the chair behind it was padded and moved comfortably on a swivel. There was the stub of a cigar in the stone ashtray. Ballarat was of average height, portly, a trifle short in the leg. But his rich side whiskers were immaculately barbered and he smelled of cologne. His clothes were perfectly pressed, from his bright oxblood boots to the matching brown tie round his stiff white collar. He was the antithesis of the disheveled Pitt, whose every garment was at odds with another, pockets weighted down by nameless objects. Even now, a piece of string trailed from one, and a hand- knitted muffler half obscured his soft collar.

“Well?” Ballarat demanded irritably. “Close the door, man! I don’t want half the station listening. The matter is confidential, I told you that before. Well, what have you got?”

“Very little,” Pitt replied. “They were pretty thorough at the time.”

“I know that, damn it! I’ve read the papers on the case!” Ballarat pushed his short fingers further into his pockets, fists clenched. He rocked back and forth very slightly on the balls of his feet. “Was it a chance break-in? Some amateur who got caught in the act and panicked, killing young York instead of escaping like a professional? I’m sure any connection with the Foreign Office was coincidental. I have been told by the highest authority,” and he repeated the words, rolling them on his tongue, “the highest authority, that our enemies have no knowledge of the work York was engaged in.”

“More probably some friend of York’s who ran up a debt and turned his hand to burglary to try to get out of it,” Pitt answered frankly, and saw the look of displeasure on Ballarat’s face. “He knew where the first-edition Swift was.”

“Inside help,” Ballarat said immediately. “Bribed a servant.”

“Possibly. Assuming there was a servant who knew a first-edition Swift when she saw it. Not the sort of thing the Honorable Piers York would discuss with the tweeny.”

Ballarat opened his mouth to tell Pitt not to be sarcastic with him, then thought better of it and changed course. “Well, if it was one of their social acquaintances, you’d better be damn careful in your questions, Pitt! This is a very delicate investigation we’ve been entrusted with. A careless word and you could ruin reputations-not to mention your own career.” He looked increasingly uncomfortable, his face flushed to a dull purplish hue. “All the Foreign Office wants us to establish is that there was nothing-untoward, nothing unseemly in Mrs. York’s conduct. It is no part of your business to blacken the name of a dead man, an honorable man who gave distinguished service to his queen and to his country.”

“Well, there has been information disappearing from the Foreign Office,” Pitt said, his voice rising in frustration, “and the burglary at the York house needs a great deal more explanation than it’s had so far.”

“Then get on with it, man!” Ballarat snapped. “Either find out which friend it was, or better still, prove it wasn’t a friend at all! Clear Mrs. Veronica York of the slightest possible mark against her character, and we’ll all be thanked.”

Pitt opened his mouth to retort, but saw the pointlessness of it reflected in Ballarat’s black eyes. He swallowed his temper. “Yes sir.”

He went out with his mind seething. Then the cold air hit his face, stinging with rain, and he was jostled by passersby on the dark pavements. He heard carriages clattering by, saw shops with windows lit and gas lamps burning in the streets, smelled chestnuts roasting on a brazier. Pitt heard someone singing a carol, and he was overtaken by other things. He imagined his children’s faces on Christmas morning. They were old enough now to be excited; already Daniel asked every night if it was Christmas tomorrow yet, and Jemima, with a six-year-old’s elder-sister superiority, told him he must wait. Pitt smiled. He had made a wooden train for Daniel, with an engine and six carriages. He had bought a doll for Jemima, and Charlotte was sewing dresses, petticoats, and a fine bonnet for her. Lately he had noticed that when he came in unexpectedly she pushed her sewing in a bundle under a cushion, and looked up far too innocently at him.

His smile broadened. He knew she was making something for him. He was particularly pleased with what he had found for her, a pink alabaster vase about nine inches high, simple and perfect. It had taken him seven weeks to save up enough. The only problem was Emily, Charlotte’s widowed sister. She had married for love, but her husband George had had both title and wealth. After the shock of her bereavement last summer it was only natural that she and her five-year-old son, Edward, should come on Christmas Eve to spend the holiday with her sister.

But what could Pitt possibly afford to give Emily that would please her?

He had still not solved the problem when he arrived at his front door. Pitt took off his wet coat and hung it on the hook, undid his sodden boots, and started towards the kitchen in his stocking feet.

Jemima met him halfway along the passage, cheeks flushed, eyes shining.

“Papa, isn’t it Christmas yet? Isn’t it even Christmas Eve?”

“Not yet.” He swung her up into his arms and hugged her.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, my sweetheart, I’m sure.” He carried her into the kitchen and put her down. Gracie, the maid, was upstairs with Daniel. Charlotte was alone, surveying the final touches to her Christmas cake, a wisp of hair curling over her brow. She smiled at him. “Any interesting cases?”

“No. An old case that will go nowhere.” He kissed her once; then kissed her again with growing warmth.

“Nothing?” she persisted.

“Nothing. It’s only a formality.”


At first Charlotte accepted Pitt’s brief dismissal of his new case, because she was preoccupied with Christmas and all the arrangements. There was so much that had to be done in the kitchen: the hiding of carefully wrapped threepenny pieces in the plum pudding, the making of sweets, jam for tarts and chopped fruits for mince pies. And there were presents to finish and wrap in colored paper. On top of that, everything must be kept secret, to be a surprise on the day.

At any other time she would have been more inquisitive, and considerably more persistent. In the past Charlotte had involved herself in some of Thomas’s most complex and personally tragic cases, drawn in by deliberate curiosity or outrage at some event. It was only last summer that her sister Emily’s husband had been murdered, and that case had seemed endless. Emily herself had been the main suspect. George had had a short- lived but intense affair with Sybilla March, and Emily was the only one who knew it had ended the night before he died. Who could be expected to believe her when all the evidence was to the contrary? And Emily, in her efforts to win back George’s attention, had been so indiscreet with Jack Radley that she had deliberately given everyone the impression that she herself was romantically involved.

Charlotte had never been so afraid as during that period, nor felt true tragedy as close. When their elder sister Sarah had died it had been a loss, sudden and stark, but imposed from outside, a chance event that might have stricken anyone. George’s death was different. It had seemed a failure from within; all their assumptions about safety and love had been shattered in a simple, reverberating act, touching everything and marring it all with doubt. What lack in Emily, what emptiness in the trust she had thought so deep, had turned George to another woman with such passion? Their reconciliation after had been so brief, so delicate and so private it had not had time to blossom, and no one else had known of it. And the next morning George was dead.

There had been no pity, no attention of concerned friends as when Sarah died. Rather there had been suspicion, even hate, all sorts of old enmities and mistakes raked up and added to in the fear that blame would run over and scald everyone, leaving other people’s secrets and weaknesses exposed-as indeed they had been.

It was six months ago now, and Emily had recovered from the shock. The social acceptance had returned;

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